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Updated: 13th September 2023
Cornwall is the quintessential English seaside getaway. Rousing coastal views, lost-in-time villages, proper fish and chips, and a soundtrack of lapping waves and sprightly birds – it doesn’t get much better than this. But where is the best place to base yourself in Cornwall? That’s a little more complicated.
When I first set off to discover Cornwall’s craggy coves, idyllic villages, and spectacular coastlines, I did it all wrong. Every day, we would drag our cases back to the car for another non-stop whirlwind sightseeing tour, exhaustedly tumbling into bed full of locally brewed beer and freshly caught seafood before repeating it all again the next day.
Sure, we saw a lot. But as I’ve learnt on subsequent return trips, the real magic of this southern region isn’t in how many of Cornwall’s best attractions or beaches you tick off; it’s about embracing the laid-back pace of life. Slowing down to find the tiny back-street pubs where locals chatter, spending hours, not minutes, on your new favourite beach and enjoying a leisurely long lunch gazing out to sea. Just like my home region of Dorset and the Jurassic Coast, Cornwall is best cherished.
Things to consider when picking a base in Cornwall
While Summer is undoubtedly the most popular time to visit South West England, I’ve explored it in all seasons. And the bonus of avoiding those peak months is twofold. Firstly, the crowds disappear in the winter months, as I learnt at my cousins’ St. Ives wedding last January, wandering the enchantingly quiet streets. Secondly, the prices of accommodation and minimum night requirements also dwindle. In July and August, many places require a one-week stay. However, outside of these peak months, companies like Classic Cottages often have more flexible terms, so you can easily stay in a few places without rushing around.
And that’s exactly what I’d suggest doing for your first holiday in Cornwall. Pick two or three bases and spend two to four nights in each spot. While the distances don’t appear that far on the map, the narrow country lanes can often add to the drive time, so having a base to explore the local attractions from before moving on will be handy and minimise the constant packing and unpacking.
Then, to help you decide where is the best base in Cornwall, look at the region geographically as three different coasts. The most visited west, stretching from Portreath to near Falmouth. The south, covering Falmouth to the Devon border. And the North, stretching from Newquay to Bude. Picking a base in each of these regions will usually allow you to see anything you want without a massive drive, and now you just need to narrow down exactly where to stay in Cornwall. Read on for a brief overview of each coast, the best towns and villages to base yourself in, and some other nearby attractions.
Where to stay in West Cornwall?
One of the main towns of Cornwall and famed for pirates, the sheltered bay of Penzance is a dreamy base with all the amenities (and pubs) you could wish for, including pretty gardens, history and galleries. For a quirky and historic stay, consider making the Chocolate House your Cornwall base.
Perhaps the poster child for Cornwall, St. Ives charms with its wide beaches and charming cobbled streets and is one of the most popular destinations in England. Accommodation is snapped up quickly here, even outside of the high season, so forward planning is essential. Great food, lots of choices, and the fantastic Tate Museum – you can’t go wrong.
The Lizard Peninsula
Home to the most southerly point in England, this wonderful peninsula still has a proper ‘get away from it all’ vibe. Nature trails, rugged coves, and rock-strewn landscapes make for a great base if you want to escape from the more crowded hotspots, and you’ll find some charming places to stay, like this converted chapel.
Where else to visit in West Cornwall?
One of the most incredible spots in Cornwall is this open-air theatre, perched on the edge of a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean. Come and visit for a tour by day, or if you’re in luck, grab tickets to enjoy a show.
The mining history of Cornwall (and Devon) is UNESCO-listed, and although the industry is well past its heyday if you want to dig a little deeper into the history of the region, then Levant Mine is the place to do it.
The Lizard Peninsula
One of the most beautiful spots to enjoy a leisurely walk in Cornwall, this peninsula is dreamy and full of plenty of picturesque bays, complete with pubs, such as Coverack, to stop and take it all in.
Cornish Seal Sanctuary
Cornwall is home to plenty of seals, and on some beaches, you’ll see them basking on the sand. Here, injured seals and pups are treated until they are ideally well enough to return to the wild – a popular conservation spot and fun for the kids.
Saint Michael’s Mount
Almost a sister of the French counterpart, this tiny island of stone homes is a fun side-trip from the mainland, especially at low tide when it’s the best time to walk the causeway, which links it to the town of Marazion.
Lands End & The Cornish Coastal Path
This dramatic and scenic headland offers some of the best walking trails you can enjoy in Cornwall. The mammoth South West Coastal Path is a huge multi-day trek, but picking some of the trails around here will give you a great taste of it.
Isles of Scilly
Take a short flight or boat and head to the Isles of Scilly, an amazing collection of white-sand beaches that will have you feeling like you’re no longer in the UK!
Where to stay in South Cornwall?
St Austell Bay
One of my favourite places in the country and home to one of my favourite breweries, St Austell town itself is an old market town with good road connections to explore from. The St Austell Bay area and places such as Mevagissey are packed with colourful boats in their harbours and a plethora of seafood restaurants and make for relaxed evenings drinking a pint to lapping waves.
Cornwall isn’t all about the coast, and inland Truro is a beautiful cathedral town to base yourself at. Especially if you plan to spend your trip focused more on gardens, such as Trelissick, rather than spend most of your trip on the coast.
Packed with plenty to keep everyone entertained, from castles and sheltered bays to museums and tropical gardens, Falmouth, as a large town, promises both a great base and somewhere worthy of its own time to explore.
Where else to visit in South Cornwall?
The fascinating Eden Project, a space beloved by both adults and kids, is home to striking exhibitions, interactive experiences, and plant species from around the world in the domed-shaped enclosed gardens.
Situated on a headland with some stunning beach views, Pendennis Castle is an interesting stop for history lovers. Constructed by Henry VIII, this military fort, still with cannons and plenty to see, is worth visiting.
Post visiting Pendennis, swing by the cute bay beach of Swanpool to enjoy a delicious seafood spread at Hooked on the Rocks restaurant, one of the best meals I’ve ever had in Cornwall.
Lost Gardens of Heligan
I’m not much of a garden person, but the Lost Gardens of Heligan bring a lot to the table. This vast area of manicured plants and woodlands covers some 200 acres, including suspended bridges and moss-coated statues. It is made even more special by the fact that thirty-odd years ago, the gardens were reclaimed by nature, adding an air of intrigue to any visit.
This charming fishing harbour with colourful boats and fireplace pubs is a detour worth making; if you want to capture Cornwall perfectly in one photo, this is a spot to do it in!
Where to stay in North Cornwall?
The premier surf destination of Cornwall, Newquay is one of the best wave-riding adventure spots in the UK. Over the years, it has really grown in popularity, making it very tourist-friendly. There’s an abundance of attractions, restaurants, and beaches. Plus, with decent connections to A-roads, it’s easy to access plenty of other nearby attractions from Newquay.
This small fishing village is about as picturesque as you can get, and while the sun brings the day-trippers, by night, it feels truly special to have this charming spot to yourself. Pick a cottage with sea views to enjoy the magic, or drive a little further inland to stay in an old converted post office.
Where else to visit in North Cornwall?
While the castle itself has seen better days, this amazing location, complete with bridges suspended between verdant rocks, stair boardwalks, and beautiful beaches, makes this a must-visit. A medieval fortification with legends of King Arthur, it’s a fascinating and majestic place.
Bude Sea Pool
Bude is a charming Cornwall town and a great place to stop for some fish and chips or just a rest from driving. On the coast, the artificial oceanfront lido of Bude Sea Pool is ideal for cooling off whenever the sun does make its UK debut!
Another charming and quaint harbour town, Padstow, is especially pretty early morning if the water is still to get a postcard-perfect reflection photo of the stone houses and boats in the harbour. It’s a popular lunch and dinner spot due to Rick Stein’s Fish & Chips restaurant and many other great places to eat in Padstow.
Perranporth, Bedruthan Steps & Fistral Beaches
There are some gorgeous beaches along this stretch of coast, but these three, in particular, stand out. If you only have the time to visit one, I would say opt for Bedruthan Steps. It’s beautiful, and your camera will thank you!
*Article produced in partnership with Classic Cottages, written from my own experiences travelling through Cornwall